Monday, December 31, 2007

 

Nautical archaeology takes a leap forward

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Times Online
December 31, 2007


For centuries the harbour of Ancient Constantinople, modern Istanbul, was the inlet of the Golden Horn, running north between the peninsula on which the city’s core stands and the commercial and foreign quarter of Galata and Pera to the east. A boom across the inlet protected the city from attack, although the Ottoman troops of Mehmet II stormed across the Golden Horn in 1453 to end the Byzantine Empire.

A second, mainly commercial, harbour, in use from the 5th-10th centuries AD, has been found on the south shore of the peninsula, on the Sea of Marmara. Yenikapi was discovered four years ago during construction of a rail link between Europe and Asia across the Bosphorus: it had become filled in with silt and forgotten.

Now one of the largest archaeological investigations in Europe, Yenikapi has produced waterlogged finds ranging in date from 7,000 years ago to the Ottoman age. Two dozen or so Byzantine ships are among the most important, says James Delgado of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology (INA) at Texas A&M University.

“This is one of the greatest nautical archaeological sites of all time, a repository of forgotten Byzantine shipbuilding,” he says. “After analysis, the work at Yenikapi should rewrite the book on Byzantine shipbuilding, and the role of maritime trade in the history of Constantinople.”

Some of the vessels are merchantmen, with cargoes preserved by the thick mud, while others may be warships. One ship, Hull 6, dates from the 7th century and will allow important comparisons with the coeval Yassiada ship. Excavated more than 40 years ago, this is an example of nautical technology at the pinnacle of Byzantine power.

Yenikapi has ushered in a new age of nautical archaeology, hitherto concentrated on shipwrecks and upstanding harbour works. “Dry excavations of silted harbours are poised to tell us more about naval technology and hull construction than we might ever learn from a single shipwreck”, says Deborah Carlson of the INA. An on-site museum is planned, which will add an extra strand to the rich culture of modern Istanbul and the understanding of its Greek precursors.


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